Nov 5, 2008

The Virgin in the Garden by A.S. Byatt

Set in Yorkshire in 1952, The Virgin in the Garden tells the story of the Potter family and of those who surround them. The eldest daughter, Stephanie, is a brilliant Cambridge graduate who frustrated her family’s expectations of her by coming back to her home town to teach at a grammar school. She further disappoints her intolerant father by falling in love with the local vicar, Daniel Orton.

The second daughter, seventeen-year-old rebellious Frederica, is madly in love with Alexander Wedderburn, a young colleague of her father’s at the English department. To celebrate the coronation of a new Queen, Alexander wrote a verse play about Elizabeth I, and Frederica badly wants to be cast for it. She also wants everyone around her to stop seeing her as a child, and she's impatient to grow up and gain knowledge of the world in general and of sexuality in particular.

Finally, we have sixteen-year-old Marcus, a mathematic prodigy who lost his abilities when he tried to explain them to his father. Marcus is approached by an obsessive teacher, Lucas Simmonds, and what begins as an experiment ends up turning into an intense and awkward friendship with consequence for the two.

I picked up The Virgin in the Garden without quite knowing what it was about, and now that I’ve read it I understand why. It’s really very difficult to explain what this book is about. I haven’t felt this way since I read Zadie Smith’s On Beauty – not that the books have much in common beyond the fact that both are set in academic contexts.

I suppose I could say that The Virgin in the Garden is about literature and growing up and love and desire and life. I read this book very slowly—not only because it’s longish, and because I’ve been doing other things, but also because it’s a dense book, best savoured over time. It’s very much full of literary allusions – to Shakespeare, to Keats, to Ovid, to D.H. Lawrence, to T.S. Eliot, and so on. In fact, some of the chapters are named after other novels or poems or plays, like “Women in Love”, “Ode to a Grecian Urn”, “Good Wives”, etc.

A.S. Byatt’s writing – more so in her novels than in her short stories, I think – is very much cerebral. I actually hate this word, and normally you wouldn’t catch me using it, but I really can’t think of a better one. Yet the reason why I enjoy it so much is that it’s passionate and readable at the same time. Reading her books is such a pleasure for me. Despite being somewhat dense, they don’t feel like work, and they don’t strike me as pretentious in the least. When her characters, many of them academics or writers themselves, make references to other works, I don’t feel like she’s doing it to be literary or whatever. I feel like she’s doing it as a nod to other authors she, or her characters, truly admire and are passionate about. And being so passionate about literature myself, how can I not love that?

I guess I could say that The Virgin in the Garden is a character-oriented novel, and yet a lot happens in it plot-wise. The only problem is that I felt that all three storylines are supposed to be intense, yet I couldn’t help but feel more interested in one, Stephanie’s, at the expense of the others. But despite this, and despite how long it took me to read it, I never actually grew impatient with the book. The Virgin in the Garden is not something everyone would like, and I’d rather recommend The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye or Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice as an introduction to Byatt. But I found this book absolutely charming.

Other Opinions:
A Striped Armchair
Out of the Blue


  1. I know what you mean about finding books hard to explain! I think you did a great job with this one though! I always like reading books that reference other books. I'm a literature lover and I think it's great to stumble across authors who love reading as much as they love writing and put that into their books.

    I will have to check out some of these books by Byatt, I've never heard of her so I'd love to know more.

  2. Byatt intrigues me like a moth to flame. I just don't know if I'm smart enough to enjoy her work!

  3. I'm a fan of Byatt, althought like you I think her short stories/novellas are more accessible than her novels. I've got this in my TBR pile, and am looking forward to it.

  4. Oh, this is one of my favourite books ever! I'm so glad you liked it!

  5. It is times like this that make me feel the most ignorant! i have never heard of Byatt..but your review has made me want to read this very book even though you seem to recommend other books by this author more.. this is going right on my wishlist.. i am trying to keep my wishlist REALLY small and it sure is not working:)

  6. Off topic because I'm in catch-up mode . . . The new puppy is adorable! And, I love your bookmarks!

  7. You know I'm not sure I'd enjoy this book but you have a way of writing your reviews that makes a book sound so worth reading.

  8. I think the best books take longer to read and as you say 'are savored over time'.
    great review as usual!
    I agree with Dar, you always make the books sound worth reading.

  9. You certainly did an awesome job explaining the book to me. I think I mentioned in my blog that I went on a Byatt book-shopping spree after I read Possession. Unfortunately I haven't gotten around to reading this series (I think it's more like Frederica Potter's series than the others). Gee, I probably have all books in the series and none of their pages read :(

  10. Byatt's an author that I've wanted to read ever since I started reading your blog. I have Possession sitting on my TBR bookshelf right now. This sounds like one that I'll read down the line if I like her other stuff.

  11. I have Elementals and Possession to read and I am looking forward to reading at least one next year. She is someone often cited by authors I like and I can't wait to get going. I will put this on my list depending on how I find the first two. Thanks for the review.

  12. I really loved Possession, and have this book on my shelf as well. I am looking forward to reading it even more after reading your review. You have a great site and read some really interesting things as well!

  13. Despite your wonderful review, which honestly is just absolutely lovely to read, this sounds like the kind of book that would totally intimidate me. One of these days, I suppose I just need to give up on the idea that I just won't "get" certain books, and give some of them a try.

  14. Andrea, from what I know of your taste I really think you'll like her fairy tales. So do give either Djinn or Elementals a try!

    Care, of course you are! Smart, I mean, though that doesn't necessarily mean you'll enjoy her work. In my opinion, enjoying a book or not doesn't have much to do with being smart enough or not :P

    Sarah: I hope you enjoy this one! And I'm glad I was introduced to Byatt through her short stories...I think the novels might have intimidated me a bit at first.

    Alessandra: I really did :) And it's great to hear from you! You haven't posted in a while, so lately I've been wondering where you were :P

    Ramya: Nothing to feel ignorant about! Every day I discover authors I haven't heard of before either. And I know just what you mean :P I've pretty much given up on even trying to control my wishlist.

    Bookfool, thank you :D

    Dar, aww, thanks :)

    Naida: that is indeed often the case. And thank you!

    Lightheaded: After Possession I wanted to have everything she's ever written too, so I can definitely relate. I didn't fall in love with this one the same way I did with Posession, but it was still well worth reading. And yes, I think the rest of the "quartet" is about Frederica. I need to read it!

    Chris: I'm pretty sure you'll like at least some of her stuff, though Byatt is one of those authors you can never be quite sure how people will react to. I really hope you enjoy Possession when you get to it! I actually think it's more accessible than this one, even though it's longer. In a way it's also an "academic" book, but it's also a love story between two Victorian poets, and it's full of lore and fairy tales and history and tenderness and beauty...gah, writing this is making me want to read it again :P

    Rhinoa: Good to hear you already have Elementals...I'll keep that in mind for our challenge :P One of my very favourite adult fairy tales is in that book!

    Zibilee, I just loved Possession too. I hope you enjoy this one! And thank you so much :)

    Debi: I'm completely sure you'd get them! Like I was telling Care, I really don't think that enjoying her books has much to do with getting them or's just personal taste :P And this one is certainly not for everyone's taste.

  15. Lol. I've read a few of those where you liked a book but can't really explain it (well you did a good job regardless), nothing recently though. Sounds like an interesting story but I've heard that her short stories are best for first timers to her work.

  16. What a glowing review. I don't always like books that are "cerebral," but this one sounds really good.

  17. You've been tagged by the way :p

  18. hmmm...good review, good storyline, but I have never heard of the author before. May be I should pick up one of the books you have mentioned at the end and start with that.

  19. I haven't read anything by this author although I know I should. Your review makes me want to start with this one. I know what you mean about multiple story lines with characters. I almost always prefer one over the others. I think that's just natural. However, I think it's the mark of a great writer to not make you want to rush through the other parts of the book to get back to your preferred storyline.

  20. Hi Ana :) Come over to my blog and pick up your award.

    You do not have to do all the rules if time does not permit, just get the award :)

  21. never heard of this book! Not sure I'd want to read it, because I hate when there's different story lines and I'm more interested in only one!

  22. Sounds like an interesting book. I'm intrigued.

    Diary of an Eccentric

  23. You always have interesting books lined up for us. I think instead of banning books, I should 'ban' your blog. Dangerous place to be! Guarantee to buy more books after visiting. LOL.

    BTW, I hope you'll play along in this book tag:

  24. Ladytink, I really think they are!

    Framed: I don't either, but Byatt is an exception.

    Chris: I really like that meme and I'll get to it soon :P

    Violet, I hope you enjoy it when you do :)

    Lisa: Yes, I agree that preferring one storyline is almost impossible to avoid...but she did make me interested enough in the others to enjoy each page of the book :)

    Madeleine, thank you again :D

    Valentina: Do read at least her fairy tales, though! I think they're right up your alley.

    Anna, I hope you enjoy it if and when you pick it up :)

    Alice: nooooo, don't ban me :P And thanks for the tag, I will definitely play along!

  25. You make me actually want to read this one! I have Possession on several challenges for this year, but I keep avoiding it and I don't know why, since it sounds like I would love it - literary allusions and great writing. I'll let you know when I try her. A great review, also, Nymeth, and I love how you say this is a book to be savoured.

  26. Susan, maybe I'm wrong, but I think Possession has your name written all over it! So please don't feel intimated and read it! I wish I could read it for the first time again. It was one of those books that completely blew me away.

  27. Actually, I happened to buy Possession few days ago because it was on sale on a beautiful twin edition together with Middlemarch by George Elliot.
    I know you're read it, would you recommend it? a colleague of mine said he really liked it but then told me what it was about and I wasn't that impressed...


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